This Was a Big Week for John Prescott but You Could Be Forgiven for Not Noticing
Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)
John Prescott made his own distinctive policy pitch this week for the first time since becoming deputy leader and was greeted with silent derision from some of his senior colleagues. Indeed so keen were other party leaders to distance themselves from the independent report on regional development Prescott had commissioned that they persuaded the deputy leader himself to remain silent.
Striking an unlikely retiring pose, Prescott introduced the report at a news conference but said he would not take questions as it was not a party document.
Behind the uncharacteristic silence of senior frontbenchers, a battle is being fought. It is being billed in some quarters as "old" Labour versus "new". The conflict centres on the degree to which economic growth can be achieved by the involvement of administrative or elected bodies in the regions.
The main thesis of the Regional Policy Commission, which was chaired by the former Labour minister Bruce Millan, is that the establishment of regional development agencies accountable to elected regional chambers, combined with better co-ordination of other regional bodies, can contribute significantly to economic development in the regions.
Although silent on the matter for the time being, Prescott agrees. It is even possible that he might wish to be the minister for regions proposed in the report. He regards the proposals as a way of "reversing the tide of centralisation and giving regions and the people who live in them more power to determine their own future". He has the backing of those regarded as his traditional supporters. Most Labour MPs from the north of England are enthusiastic, as are council leaders and trade unionists.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are thought to be much more wary. The determination of the party hierarchy to ensure that the report lives or dies as an independent document suggests there is no great enthusiasm. There is discreet talk behind the scenes of the proposals being bureaucratic and irrelevent. Those who oppose them argue that Labour's policies aimed at tackling youth unemployment, rather than more tiers of regional government, will address economic and social injustice.
If it is true that Brown will oppose the implementation of the report, Prescott may be tempted to assume a crusading role against the orthodoxies of the Treasury. He regards the commission's proposals as potentially powerful regional counters to the traditionally cautious approach of the Treasury in the pursuit of economic growth. One of his closest political allies says that Prescott sees himself as the "George Brown of the next Labour government making an attempt to stifle the powers of the Treasury".
Prescott made his views on the most powerful Whitehall department public last month in a provocative speech in which he stated that: "The Treasury has well-established and embedded ways of dealing with major economic and social issues. Even in the role of public finances it has failed to act on every occasion in the best interests of maximising growth and investment. Too often in the past, the dead hand of the Treasury has stifled initiative and innovation in the public and private sector." He made his contribution at a time when Gordon Brown was being criticised by other shadow cabinet colleagues for his dominance over policy-making in opposition.
But is Prescott inclined to to press his case by using his power base in the party, which readily coalesces around support for his view of the regions? And will Blair succumb in the face of the opposition of other senior colleagues, not least his shadow chancellor?
On past evidence the answer to both questions must be no. On most issues Prescott has shown himself a loyal or malleable deputy, depending on which way his tolerance of the Blair project is viewed. On nearly every issue on which Prescott's view was known to be different to Blair's he has conceded to the leader.
Prescott's main difference with Blair when he campaigned for the leadership of the party was the need for clearly defined targets as a Labour government moved towards full employment. …